Friday, January 16, 2015

Let's Deregulate The NFL

The NFL is riding high as America’s Game, but it has a problem.
Most criticism of the NFL has been aimed at player safety, concussions in particular, and player behavior off the field, highlighted by some high profile domestic abuse cases.  Both are issues that require attention, but neither issue impacts the experience of watching an NFL game.
The real problem facing the NFL and its ability to keep its stadiums full and TV ratings strong, is the rulebook.  For a game built around watching enormous human beings pushing themselves to their physical limits of strength, agility and aggressiveness, it’s too often the old men in pinstripes with the most influence over the result of a game.  Ticky-tack penalties and obscure rule infractions often overshadow the incredible athleticism of the players on the field.
NFL viewers tune in to see Dez Bryant make acrobatic catches at the goal line with a trip to the conference finals hanging in the balance.  We tune in to watch JJ Watt burst through offensive lines for a huge sack on a key third down.  We tune in to watch Richard Sherman scratch and claw to keep the ball out of Calvin Johnson’s hands.
Unfortunately, the first question we ask after these plays is “was there a flag?”  And far too often, the answer is yes, erasing that play from history.
When these penalties occur, it kills the flow of the game, negates the skill and athleticism of the players and fills the aggrieved team and its fans with rage, and rightfully so.   Andrew Sharp does an excellent job dissecting this outrage on using the Dez Bryant catch (or non-catch as the case may be) as an example. 
After Bryant’s acrobatic catch, the opposing coach challenges the call and we’re forced to sit through 538 replays in a feeble attempt to apply nonsensical rules to a bang-bang play on a frame-by-frame basis.  Then the referee comes back and negates the play using rules devoid of logic.  That huge sack is overturned because Watt, after getting pushed, shoved and otherwise harassed by a 300-lbs lineman, happens to graze the QB’s helmet with his pinky, drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty.  Sherman’s incredible coverage of Johnson draws a penalty because Matthew Stafford horrendously under-throws a pass, making it look like Sherman stops Johnson from coming back to the ball, drawing a 40-yard pass interference penalty. 
In a well played and officiated game, you don’t even notice the referees.  Can you remember watching an NFL game where you didn’t notice the referees?  We can’t.  Between the booth reviews, the incessant defensive holding and illegal contact penalties, the over-calling of pass interference and the over protection of quarterback and wide receivers, the referees control an ever growing proportion of the game.  The average Dad in the stands didn’t pay $500 to take his kid to watch referees throw yellow hankies all over the place or sit through long reviews, and the 7 year old watching at home and wondering why his team scored a touchdown, but isn’t allowed to keep the points, might give up and just go back to his Clash of Clans village. 
So what should the NFL do about it?
Our thoughts:
1.       Instant replay should be limited to 40 seconds and run out of NFL headquarters (like baseball and hockey).  If coaches and quarterbacks have to make decisions within the confines of a 40 second play clock, so should the referees.  If the seasoned referees in the replay booth can’t overturn the play based on a couple of replays, the call on the field stands.  The purpose of replay is not to dissect each play on a frame-by-frame basis, it’s to ensure that egregious mistakes are remedied.  40 seconds is plenty of time to determine if an obvious mistake has been made.
2.       A catch equals control and two feet (or one elbow, knee, rear end) in bounds.  That’s it.  The entire rule about controlling through the process is thrown out.  The idea that if the ball touches the ground at any point during the catch it’s not a catch is also thrown out.  If a player has control of the ball, and is in bounds, it’s a catch.  That’s it. All fumble rules apply after that point.
3.       The pass interference rules need to be radically overhauled.  First, pass interference should only be a spot foul if it’s egregious enough to be considered unsportsmanlike conduct.  If the defender is beat and their only chance to prevent a touchdown is to tackle the receiver before the ball arrives, that’s unsportsmanlike conduct and a spot foul.  If the foul is just a bit of sloppy defending or poor timing, it’s a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down.  This works in college, no reason it can’t work in the NFL.  Lastly, pass interference cannot be called on an underthrown ball.  The controversial non-call against the Dallas Cowboys in the wild card round is a perfect example of this rule.  Under this proposal, the non-call would have been correct and uncontroversial because the ball was badly underthrown, forcing the tight end to try and stop his forward motion and reach back downfield to try and catch the ball.  A quarterback’s bad throw shouldn’t be rewarded with a pass interference call.

4.       We’re all for player safety, but the ticky-tack personal foul calls need to stop, particularly on plays involving quarterbacks and wide receivers.  I don’t think this requires a rule change, but the commissioner should issue an Obama-like executive order instructing the referees to only enforce in obviously dangerous and intentional hits, not every glance of the helmet.  As an offset, players are no longer just fined for dangerous hits, they should also be suspended more liberally - even if its just for a quarter, a half or multiple games.  A player is much more sensitive to missing game time as he is to missing Benjamin's.  The NHL model would work well here - i.e. player can appeal, and all decisions are announced promptly and publically with a full explanation.   
5.       Coaches should be able to challenge an announced personal foul penalty (i.e. you cannot challenge anything that was not called) or for/against the unsportsmanlike conduct version of pass interference on any pass play (i.e. you can either challenge the penalty, or challenge the non-call).  These are currently the only two game changing plays that are not reviewable, but they should be.
6.       Illegal shift, illegal formation, illegal motion, ineligible man down field, and ineligible receivers – all of these random rules are revoked – except illegal forward motion – that can stay in the CFL and Arena league.  Who cares how many players are lined up on the line of scrimmage?  Who cares if the left tackle catches a pass?  Who cares if two players are in motion during the snap?  What’s the harm in the center sprinting down the field before a pass is thrown?
These changes put the game back in the hands of the players and coaches, exactly where it belongs.


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